Hoops agent Leisa Washington aims to help women by representing men

When Leisa Washington launched her sports agency, the MPP Sports Group, earlier this month, the Ajax resident envisioned the company helping create space for women in a male-dominated industry.

But she doesn’t want women as clients.

“There’s nothing worse than being underpaid,” says Leisa Washington, the first Canadian woman certified to represent both NBA and WNBA players.
“There’s nothing worse than being underpaid,” says Leisa Washington, the first Canadian woman certified to represent both NBA and WNBA players.  (Jim Rankin / Toronto Star)

That strategy might sound counterintuitive, given Washington’s trailblazer status in Canada’s basketball industry. The 43-year-old mother of two is the first Canadian woman certified to represent players in both the WNBA and NBA. But Washington says her stance makes business sense, both for her and for female basketball pros.

Where Washington hopes to grow her company by focusing on the small but increasing number of Canadian NBA prospects emerging each year, she says taking a percentage of a WNBA player’s salary makes her squeamish.

The pay disparity between the NBA (median salary: $ 3.78 million, all dollars U.S.) and the WNBA (median salary: $ 71,635) has made headlines in recent weeks, and Washington says she’ll likely revisit her policy when both her company and the WNBA’s pay scale have grown. While WNBA players might not be a lucrative target for an agent, Washington says that’s not why she isn’t taking on any female clients for the moment.

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“There’s nothing worse than being underpaid,” Washington said. “I’m not taking money that these young ladies worked so hard to get … What I’m interested in is creating an avenue to create more (opportunities).”

On one level, the pay disparity reflects a simple revenue disparity. The NBA’s collective agreement mandates players receive 50 per cent of league revenues in the form of salaries, and last year the league brought in a reported $ 7.4 billion, up 25 per cent over the previous year thanks to a lucrative new media rights deal. Meanwhile, the New York Times reported in 2016 that half of the WNBA’s teams were losing money. Overall the league brought in a reported $ 51.5 million to spread among its 12 teams, whose active rosters total 144 players.

But WNBA star Skylar Diggins-Smith says player salaries equal roughly 20 per cent of league revenues, and argues that audience size and cash flow would grow if broadcast partners such as ESPN positioned the product more effectively.

“Yes, LeBron is one of the best athletes in the world,” Diggins-Smith wrote in an essay for the investment site WealthSimple. “But they’ll go into everything that he ate before they show a highlight of a WNBA game.”

Washington has firsthand experience with women’s pro basketball and the dilemmas low salaries pose for players. Her daughter, Dakota Whyte, has played pro ball in Sweden and Greece, but at age 23 is already semi-retired, working for Nike and pondering how much longer to play, Washington says.

The sharply differing pay scales between men’s and women’s pro ball prompted Washington to focus her business on the men’s game, hoping to establish a niche among Canadian prospects. She says the group is large enough to offer growth, but small enough to forge deep relationships with clients.

“I’m not trying to represent 16 or 17 clients,” she said. “I want to represent four or five.”

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While Washington plans to have a fully operational company by January 2019, in time to line up prospects for that year’s NBA draft, experts stress that obstacles abound for fledgling sports agencies — especially those with a woman in charge. Toronto-based NBA agent Gary Durrant says players often prefer established brands when selecting agents, allowing veterans and big companies to box out upstarts.

“It’s hard to convince players you can do a good job for them when you haven’t necessarily done it for someone else,” said Durrant, who represents five players including Frank Mason III of the Sacramento Kings. “That’s what the competition would use against you.”

And then there’s gender.

Fewer than 20 of the roughly 400 agents registered with the NBA’s players association are women, while women compose roughly five per cent of all certified NFL agents.

While the industry remains largely male, Alabama-based NFL agent Alexa Stabler says gender isn’t a barrier between her and her clients. Instead, she says, normally macho male athletes will often discard their bravado when dealing with her, fostering healthier conversations.

“They’re willing to be open and honest with me,” says Stabler, daughter of NFL hall of famer Ken Stabler. “There’s not that male ego that sometimes exists in relationships between men.”

Washington recognizes the challenges facing a female-led startup in a largely male industry, but says her experiences in sports and politics have prepared her for them.

This past spring, Washington ran as the Liberal candidate for provincial parliament in the Whitby riding, finishing third with 13 per cent of the vote. The company name MPP Sports isn’t a nod to her run for office, but she says the campaign reinforced for her the importance of persistence and political engagement.

“(It) taught me a lot about democracy,” Washington said. “Now I can take and teach my clients about the importance of voting and having your voice heard.”

Morgan Campbell is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MorganPCampbell


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